“Idolatry is committed not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils; by making men afraid of war or alcohols, or economic law, when they should be afraid of spiritual corruption and cowardice.” – G.K. Chesterton
Over one hundred years ago, G.K. Chesterton warned us about the danger of believers using fear in order to make other people afraid of a fellow believer, or even of a person who may not be a believer, but simply disagrees with us. Back when G.K. Chesterton wrote, there were those who campaigned for temperance, or campaigned against a certain economic system. One has to understand G.K. Chesterton and the English of that time period to understand why he also brought war into it. I do not have time to discuss it, but let us just say that for the English of that time, sometimes waging war was better than tolerating evil. Thus, if a Kaiser rises up, you must hold; if a Hitler rises up, you must hold. War, for them, was sometimes the proving ground that demonstrated your commitment to truth and to the defense of the weak and powerless.
Thus, it is no surprise that G.K. Chesterton goes on to say that we should be afraid of both spiritual corruption and of cowardice. In the context of what he wrote, spiritual corruption would include calling a fellow believer a heretic or an apostate simply because they disagree with us. Cowardice would be our willingness to assent to evil simply because we are afraid of the consequences of defending the weak and the helpless. But, there is a cautionary tale here.
The cautionary tale is that it is all too easy to define courage as being the opposition to anything or anyone that disagrees with us. That is, we set up false devils. That is a very real and present danger. G.K. Chesterton was a Roman Catholic. He was quite accustomed to non-Catholic Christians in England calling him a heretic or dismissing him as someone to whom we should not listen. It was not until 1829 that Roman Catholics regained most of their rights. It took another few more years before the last restrictions were removed. G.K Chesterton was born less than 50 years after the passage of that Act, and would have know many Roman Catholics who remembered the days when their liberty was severely diminished. When he visited America on speaking tours, he would have met many Americans who still would consider him a non-Christian.
This is the setting behind his remark about setting up false devils. And, he was right. We run the same dangers nowadays. It is all too easy to set up those who disagree with us as being not merely mistaken, but as being the worst of all heretics and apostates. Often, rather than dealing with our brother/sister in neutral disagreement, we bolster our arguments by simply declaring them to be one of those who are excluded from the Kingdom. But, that is a dangerous stand to take. There is a difference between being mistaken and being excluded from the Kingdom.
There is a difference between stating that a belief is wrong and stating that someone is excluded from the Kingdom. I can remember debates in seminary as to whether Origen and Hippolytus were in heaven. Both men started out as respected members of the Church, but ended up being classified as heretics. Does this mean that they were never saved or that they lost their salvation? That is a vastly different question. Even more difficult, for some seminary students, were those whose beliefs were found to be heretical many decades after their death. Since they never had a chance to hear the Church and repent, were they to be considered heretics as well? There was never a clear answer.
As I have gotten older, I have fewer clear answers, but those I have are basic. Among those answers that are not clear is what God will do about those who do not agree with one of my basic tenets, but who are faithfully worshipping the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. I have realized that I need to let God be God. He will choose whom he will choose. I need to simply be at peace about that. More than that, I need to be at peace with the idea that some of my beliefs are heretical, but that God will not let me go simply because I hold an unexamined and mistaken belief.
I need to have a commitment to not set up false devils. There are enough true devils to go around. And, so, I need to constantly renew my commitment to Saint Paul’s wise advice:
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never fails. But whether there are prophecies, they will fail; whether there are tongues, they will cease; whether there is knowledge, it will vanish away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part. …” (1 Corinthians 13, NKJV).
This Scripture is not merely sentimental twaddle. It is one of the foundations of what it means to be a true Christian. I must so love that my first reaction is to assume the best of those with whom I engage in conversation. My first reaction needs to be that I consider some other person to be a saint, or a potential saint, or a saint in hiding. I should not assume them to be a devil unless there is clear and positive proof of this idea. This is a hard standard to follow.